E-readers' next chapter might not have happy ending

There were plenty of the book readers on display at CES, but many question whether the market for such dedicated devices is large enough to support all the new entrants.

Tech Industry

LAS VEGAS--There were e-readers aplenty at the Consumer Electronics Show, but there's substantial doubt if there are enough interested buyers to go around.

Amazon talks up the Kindle as its best-selling product, but even the market leader won't say how many digital readers it has sold. Sony has long had its own readers and Barnes & Noble has jumped into the fray with the Nook. But it hasn't stopped there.

Plenty of other would-be rivals showed up at CES, each hoping to make a name for themselves. But, that could be tough, analysts say.

"Just being able to read a book on a device has become totally commoditized," said Gartner analyst Allen Weiner.

Indeed, the special e-book zone on the CES show floor was packed with book readers that looked like Kindle cousins, many sporting a nearly identical-looking electronic ink displays and little else of note.

Some, though did stand out. Several of the more anticipated e-readers had either bigger-thank-Kindle screens, like Plastic Logic's Que and the Skiff or, like Spring Design's Alex and the Entourage Edge, had a color LCD screen in addition to the e-ink display. But more screen real estate also typically means higher prices.

Spring Design wants $359 for its dual-screen device, while Plastic Logic said its Que will start at $649--and neither of those models have cellular connections. A pricier Que does offer an AT&T 3G connection, but sells for $799.

Beyond price, there's also the matter of getting on consumer's radar screens at all. Barnes & Noble is able to use its brand and large number of stores to garner attention for the Nook, while others are also trying to grab both mindshare and shelf space. The Que will be sold through Barnes & Noble, which powers its book store, while Spring Design on Thursday announced a partnership with Borders that the device maker says will eventually see the Alex inside Borders stores. Skiff, meanwhile, is counting on Sprint, which powers its wireless features and will carry the device in 1,000 of its stores.

And, if all those concerns weren't enough, there's also the looming Apple threat. "Certainly if an Apple tablet does come out and does what's expected it will instantly change the game," Weiner said.

Although most of the attention at CES was on new hardware, executives of Hearst-backed Skiff say their main goal is to build a good periodical platform and shopping experience that could someday power lots of devices, perhaps none of which the company would make itself.

"We want to lead by example with some cool devices and then get the hell out as fast as possible," said Skiff Chief Marketing Officer Kiliaen Van Rensselaer.

Some e-reader efforts are trying to bypass electronic-ink readers altogether. Ray Kurzweil's Blio focuses on using the power of tablets and smartphones to allow for digital books that combine text with video, audio and Web content. The Blio store, set to go live in the coming weeks, will initially work on both the PC and the iPhone.

Kurzweil, a pioneer in the digital reading arena in addition to being a computer industry luminary, says he just doesn't see that big a market for single purpose readers.

"People want to do everything--they want to watch their movies, they want to do all their computing, their e-mail on one platform," he said in an interview. "They don't want to take another device."

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